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Aid worker attack report

The year 2013 set a new record for violence against civilian aid operations, with 251 separate attacks affecting 460 aid workers. Of the 460 victims, 155 aid workers were killed, 171 were seriously wounded, and 134 were kidnapped. Overall this represents a 66 per cent increase in the number of victims from 2012 – 277. The spike in attacks in 2013 was driven mainly by escalating conflicts and deterioration of governance in Syria and South Sudan. These two countries along with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Sudan together accounted for three quarters of all attacks. The majority of aid worker victims were staffers of national NGOs and Red Cross/Crescent societies, often working to implement international aid in their own countries. Year after year, more aid workers are attacked while traveling on the road than in any other setting. In 2013, over half of all violent incidents occurred in the context of an ambush or roadside attack. The advances in humanitarian security management have failed to effectively address this most prevalent form of targeting. While some good practice exists in protective and deterrent approaches to road security, more collective thinking and action is required, particularly in developing ‘kinetic acceptance’ strategies for negotiating safe access in transit.

These are the main findings from a fifth edition of the Aid Worker Security Report. It gives statistics on attacks against aid workers from the Aid Worker Security Database (AWSD), and examines the particular security challenge of road travel. For the report in full visit – The report comes from Humanitarian Outcomes, consultants providing research and policy advice for humanitarian aid agencies and donor governments.

The 2013 record, the researchers say, was due to worsening crises in Syria and South Sudan, plus continued violence in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Sudan. The active combat in urban settings within Syria has taken the worst toll on national Red Crescent workers who serve as the first responders and implementers of much of the international aid getting into the county. Even before armed conflict broke out across South Sudan at the end of 2013, worsening conditions of lawlessness had contributed to what the report terms ‘ambient violence’. Violence against aid workers occurred in 30 countries, but three quarters of all attacks took place in five countries: Afghanistan, Syria, South Sudan, Pakistan, and Sudan.

A reduction in incidents in Somalia after many years speaks more to a diminished aid presence, often with highly curtailed movement, in South-Central Somalia that is occurring precisely because of the untenable security conditions and impunity of the perpetrators of violence, according to the research. The year 2013 saw the wholesale withdrawal of Médecins Sans Frontières after 22 years of running medical programmes in the country.

Most of these aid worker victims (401, or 87 per cent) were national staffers, i.e., people providing aid within their own countries. While most attacks were by shooting or kidnaps, an ambush or at a roadblock, in 2013 there were five ‘complex attacks’, which involve a combination of explosives and shooting. Typically, a car or truck driven by a suicide bomber detonates outside a facility, and then armed raiders penetrate the building or compound.

The report makes the point that the road seems to be little reflected in organisations’ operational security investments and priorities. “Humanitarian personnel interviewed for this report consistently stated that very little discussion or new thinking has taken place in this area, and that generally their organisations devote more effort and resources to improving site security (i.e., at offices and project sites) than to road movement.”

The report says that some aid workers killed have been ‘in the wrong place at the wrong time’, in Afghanistan for instance. However, given that foreign armies are moving out of Afghanistan, it could be that aid workers in the words of the report ‘represent one of a now smaller set of targeting options’. It is impossible for most governments, much less one that is undergoing crisis and lacks basic security sector capacity, to effectively police or survey entire stretches of road, the report says. Drive-by shootings or carjackings can be accomplished with light weaponry and do not require complex planning or a great deal of manpower. “Moreover the gain to perpetrators can be significant, potentially garnering them vehicles, looted aid materials or cash, hostages, media attention, or political leverage. As such it has been a favoured tactic by militants involved in asymmetric warfare as well as common bandits.”

The report points to difficult trade-offs between security and safety. “In certain contexts, maintaining a low-profile approach — utilising local vehicles, not wearing seatbelts, or not having radios or other communications equipment — to blend into the local community flouts what are otherwise considered important safety rules.”

The technical literature on the subject of road security is limited to Overseas Development Institute’s Good Practice Review on security management (2010), and organisations’ internal security guidance and related standard operating procedures (SOPs). The subject also receives limited intersectional discussion among humanitarian practitioners and security experts. As one interviewee noted, ‘We almost never talk about it in the community.’ The limited sharing of practice may have contributed to the narrow range of alternatives and lack of innovation within the community. It has brought the issue of road security to an intellectual dead end, with humanitarian professionals feeling that, as one put it, ‘The only way to deal with the risk is not to move.’ In contrast, far more analysis and input have gone into the design and protective elements of static security, including office compounds and residences. This has perhaps inadvertently also increased the inclination not to move, aided perceptions of ‘bunkerisation’, and increased the sense in which vehicles are a ‘softer target’.

What can aid workers do? The report covers technology and kit and policy and SOPs (standard operating procedure). For the UN, travelling in convoy in hard-skin vehicles has become the only way to move on the road in most high-risk settings where the organisation is a known target. Armoured vehicles are not within most NGOs’ fleet budgets. Or, aid organisations can take a low-profile approach, giving up the typical white 4×4 vehicles and instead using taxis or rented vehicles. In Darfur, one NGO used pink cars because they were unattractive and no one wanted them. In Mogadishu and cities throughout Afghanistan, for example, changing route, day, or time of travel, as well as the number of staff and where they sit in a vehicle, is critical.

The report casts doubt on technology as solutions: GPS, for example, despite its capability, cannot prevent an ambush or kidnapping. All it can do is provide ‘live’ tracking of vehicles for the purposes of recovery. Armed escort is generally used only as a last resort; many NGOs will cease operating before they resort to travelling under armed protection, as it could incite violence.


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